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Research 101 (older version): How to choose or focus a topic

Choosing a topic

Tips for Deciding on a Research Topic 

  • Read the assignment requirements carefully. If you are unsure what topic would be relevant, talk to your professor.
  • Choose a topic you find interesting
  • Find out how others have written about your topic. Resources they have used will likely be helpful.  
  • Consider your topic's scope. How broad or narrow is it?
    • If your topic is too broad, it may be difficult to find focused and relevant information. The topic also should be focused enough that it is meaningful to your audience. 
    • It may be hard to find information on a very narrow topic. If your topic is highly focused, be more flexible in your search strategy. For example, if you're interested in organic food labeling in a specific city, widen your information search to organic food labeling within the United States
      Too Broad: Food Safety ; Better: Impact of government regulation in the US on food safety
      Too Narrow: History of organic labeling of pork products in the city of Portland OR; Better: Labeling of organic food in the United States

    • For more on focusing your research, see the video to the right.  

Once you have a topic in mind, these strategies can also help you refine your research focus: 

  • Background research - reading reference articles, well-respected general audience periodicals, and book introductions, can help you learn more about your topic. Getting the big picture and an idea of what sub-topics exist should help you refine your focus.
  • Brainstorm concepts. Think of words or concepts that relate to that topic. (For example, if your topic is "immigration," associated words might include: laws, employment, specific countries, DACA, ICE, asylum, deportation, and the DREAM Act.) 
  • Develop a research question. Once you have a research topic and have done some background research, develop a research question. What about this topic interests you and is likely to also engage your readers? 
  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you look for relevant sources, such as scholarly articles and books, refine your topic based on what you find. While examining sources, consider how others discuss the topic. How might the sources inform or challenge your approach to your research question?
  • Research is a dynamic process. Be prepared to modify or refine your topic. This is usually the sign of thoughtful and well-done research.

The topic development process below can help you to develop your thesis (your proposed answer to your research question) and to continue gather additionally needed sources.

Topic Ideas: Organic Food, Labeling, Food Safety > Background Research > Topic Idea: Organic Food, Labeling, Food Safety > In-depth Research > Thesis: Differing opinions and business interestes in organic foods have greatly influenced food labeling laws in the United States

Resources to help you develop your topic:

  • Your instructor, Hostos librarians, course readings, class notes/
  • Library resources like subject-specific encyclopedias: overviews and introductions to topics that can also help you identify research topics and gain background knowledge. For more information, see Kinds of Resources and Where to Search.
  • Online guides - some by discipline and some by individual course - will help you identify more useful resources.

Focusing your research

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